Madder than a wet hornet



Knight, with smoke coming out of his earsThe last angry coachAnger'n sportsAnger: Airing it outManaging anger

knickers in a twist




Just doing his job?
By earning a pink slip for painting his anger across the basketball court and beyond, Bob Knight made himself a fat target for armchair psychologists. Like the drill sergeant in high dudgeon in the movie "Full Metal Jacket," the coach who's got his undies in a bundle may claim he's just expressing emotions to do a job -- to fire up the troops.

 An angry girl in her hockey uniform.
Psyched up or p.o.'d?
Courtesy Jennifer Meyers
Perhaps it's appropriate that drill sergeants scream at their charges -- they are, after all, training youths to kill. But athletes are being trained to play, not to kill, and the claim of "doing whatever is necessary" does not convince Steven Edwards, a professor of sports psychology at Oklahoma State University.

Edwards says Knight "justifies what he does with players -- that it's all for the sake of winning games. Anybody in the workplace could say they have this volatile, mean-spirited approach to work because they are paid to do a job, and that's what it takes to do the job well. That's a rationalization."

Knight's anger, he says, "probably comes from something more deep seated than anything we know... He clearly is an individual who has anger management problems."

While the root of Knight's anger presumably predates his involvement in sports, sports may play a role, says Edwards. A connection between sports and his behavior "may come from the more general phenomenon we see among athletes, especially elite athletes, when you start very young and you're taught to use aggression and anger to be successful in sport. Occasionally people use that same strategy in other aspects of their lives."

Paid to push and shove
In some cases, Edwards says, when an athlete "encounters conflict in a personal relationship, the first strategy they employ is intimidation. It's rewarded out on the field, they make millions of dollars, it's not surprising they use the same strategy in other aspects of their lives."

Edwards is in the process of researching the possible connection between long-term participation in what he calls the "very aggressive sports" of hockey and football, and the use of aggression and intimidation in daily life.

Even though athletes can act aggressively without feeling anger, aggression is so critical to football and hockey that some coaches fear that reducing anger will reduce aggression. "There's a notion among some coaches that aggression is a fundamental part of an athlete's personality and ability," says Edwards, "and that we have to be careful what we do with them. Some coaches feel if there's an anger problem, it may be better to ignore it."

If we reward aggression on the field will players act more aggressive off the field?

Parents and coaches
It's not just coaches and players who act aggressively after getting hot under the collar -- parents are also getting their knickers in a twist. "We have seen an increase in the number of reports called in by members, or media reporting on events," says Still of the referee's association. "The tenor of the type of assault has changed. Verbal assaults have become more threatening, and the acts of violence have become more physical. Parents are assaulting officials during the game and in parking lots after the game."

2 young boys each try to get the soccer ballThe fact that parents take games so seriously leads to a second problem, Still says. "When players aren't performing to their ability, it frustrates us as fans because we are those players in those uniform, we get the feeling this is my team, so when things go wrong it's easy to point a finger at officials."

As Still points out, the very word "fan" probably is short for "fanatic." -- a fact that is obvious to anyone who's watched the mayhem at soccer games in Europe or Latin America. Getting back on track, the parental message -- that losses reflect referee bungling -- allows kids and parents alike to escape responsibility for their actions, Still argues. "When I played Little League, I could not hit a curve ball, so my dad took me to the batting cage and taught me. Today parents don't seem to want to take that time with their children, it's easier to say the ump sucks."

Up on sports?
undies in a bundleA very different picture of sport emerges from research by Russell Pate, an exercise physiologist at the University of South Carolina. Using data designed to represent the U.S. population, Pate found that high-schoolers who participate in team sports were less likely to smoke, have sex, do drugs or carry weapons.

Alcohol use, however, did not vary between athletes and non-athletes.

The study found these positive correlations, Pate says (see "Study Links... " in the bibliography).

Far more sporting youth reported regular physical activity. "It's not surprising, but important, given the rising prevalence of obesity," Pate says.

Sports was consistently linked with a better diet in terms of eating more fruits and vegies.

Use of tobacco and illegal substances was less common among sporting youth.

The study shows a correlation, not a cause-and-effect relationship. Why might athletics be so helpful? Perhaps coaches or parents stress healthy behavior. Perhaps practices and games soak up free time that could be spent on illicit or unhealthy behavior. Perhaps basically healthy kids tend to take up sports to begin with.

I bet it's healthy to vent a little spleen now and then...


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